The National Park Service will no longer require permits for baptisms on rivers in the Ozark National Riverways, according to an announcement Thursday from the office of congressman Jason Smith (R-Salem).
"Today's decision by the park service is a victory for common sense,” said Smith. “The notion that permits would be required for baptisms on our riverways is ridiculous. I appreciate (ONSR) Superintendent Bill Black's quick response to my request to rescind the permit requirement, and I want to continue working with him and the folks who live along the rivers to preserve our traditions and rural way of life."
Smith was notified of the reversal in letter from Black dated Aug. 22.
“As of today the park’s policy has been clarified to state that no permit will be required for baptisms within the Riverways,” said Black’s letter to Smith.
A story about the required permit and objections from some churches was published in The Salem News Aug. 20 and on the newspaper’s web site, thesalemnewsonline.com, the same day.
Over 5,000 people read the story on the web site within 48 hours, and thousands more read it in the newspaper and spread it on facebook and other social media sites.
Smith reacted immediately and made his request of Black.
“We have closely reviewed the National Park Service Policy and have determined that as superintendent I have the option to require a special use permit for baptisms and other activities within the park,” Black wrote.
“We have reviewed our past practice of issuing special use permits and determined that I have the flexibility within agency policy to allow the baptisms without a permit.
“We also share your concern for the continuation of this traditional use of the rivers. As of today the park’s policy has been clarified to state that no permit will be required for baptisms within the riverways.”
The following story ran in The Salem News Aug. 20 and on thesalemnewsonline.com:
By Allyssa D. Dudley
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways is now actively enforcing a policy that would require churches to apply for a special use permit in order to baptize on the riverways.
ONSR has required those participating in first amendment activities to apply for a special use permit for nearly 25 years, according to Faye Walmsley, public information officer. First amendment activities can include religious services, public demonstrations and press coverage, according to information provided by ONSR.
“We have just never actively used the authority until 2006,” she said.
Walmsley said the policy is in place in order to prevent scheduling conflicts. She cited that several times she knew of multiple weddings attempting to take place on the same day at the same location, when there also may be another event taking place.
“It is a policy that needs to be enforced. We want to make sure there is no conflict between entities,” she said.
For the members of Gladden Baptist Church, being required to schedule their baptisms at Sinking Creek ahead of time is a conflict in itself.
“If the Holy Spirit is working on Sunday morning, you’re going to baptize Sunday afternoon. You may not know ahead of time,” said church member Dennis Purcell.
Purcell said that the congregation of Gladden Baptist Church has baptized its members on Sinking Creek for nearly 50 years. Originally members of the congregation would go down to the water’s edge to view the service. This changed in 2011 when the parks service installed large boulders blocking the sandbar to vehicle traffic, including wheelchairs.
It was due to this issue that Purcell contacted ONSR Superintendent William N. Black, who responded by advising Purcell that all activities would require a special-use permit. In a letter dated July 3 Black wrote,
“To maintain park natural/cultural resources and quality visitor experiences, specific terms and conditions have been established,” the letter said.
Black went on to write that a master application would be produced and sent out in multiple copies to streamline the process, and those permits would be good for seven days.
Walmsley said this week that in the future churches would be given an exception, and their permits would be good for one year. With the master application churches would be required to give two business days notification of events, including baptisms.
“We’ll fill everything out for them, and do all the work, we just need to check the schedule and approve the events,” she said.
Three area churches are currently using the master application permit for a singular location, including Midvale Pentecostal Church, Pleasant Grove United Methodist, and Hartshorn Assembly of God.
“It doesn’t really change anything. They told us they were going to respect our traditions and heritage, and they haven’t done any of that,” Purcell said.
Purcell stated that he has advised U.S. Representative Jason Smith of the issue.
If a group or individual was found using the access area without a permit, there would potentially be a fine levied, Walmsley said.